Courts lose £74m in unpaid fines

14 Mar 02
The criminal justice system is losing millions of pounds through unpaid fines, according to the National Audit Office.

15 March 2002

The scrutiny body has found that magistrates' courts, which are responsible for collecting fines, managed to recoup just £242m of the £385m, or 63%, of the fines imposed during 2000/01. At the same time, officials wrote off £74m in unpaid penalties - largely from previous years - because the offenders could not be traced. A further £77m was cancelled for a variety of reasons, for example because a prison term had been served instead.

Public Accounts Committee chair Edward Leigh said: 'This is a ridiculous state of affairs.'

NAO inspectors said there was an 'urgent need' to overhaul the collection system to make it more efficient. They found that efforts were being hampered by an over-complex and time-consuming enforcement process, involving many hearings. Enforcement work was often given a low priority.

Delays in launching enforcement action, a crucial part of successful collection, and unreliable management systems that prevent comparisons between different court areas, exacerbate the problem.

The NAO called on the 42 magistrates' courts committees, which oversee the system, to introduce a package of measures to improve performance.

Its report criticised the lack of proper systems for verifying defendants' personal details and financial means before sentencing, making it easier for people to avoid payment or disappear.

Inspectors also recommended the introduction of 'relevant and challenging' performance indicators so that committees' results can be measured and compared. The Home Office should explore ways of creating incentives for prompt payment.

The Lord Chancellor's Department anticipated the NAO's findings last month, when it raised the collection target from 63% to 68%, and gave committees an extra £10m for enforcement work.

Auditor and comptroller general Sir John Bourn said: 'Apart from the cost, the failure to bring in the remainder could undermine the credibility of financial penalties as a form of punishment.'

In a separate report, Bourn has warned the Ministry of Defence to continue developing its learning and management performance systems.

He found that the MoD had been successful in changing its procurement practices to match business demands, through integrated project teams. But he said 'firm direction' was needed to 'maintain the momentum'.


Did you enjoy this article?